Newly released on Netflix, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods seeks to rectify the whitewashing of war movies – think 2012’s Red Tails but with more Marvin Gaye and less George Lucas.
Four veterans (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen comrade (Chadwick Boseman). Shot on a mixture of digital, 16 mm and Super 8, the drama switches between formats and aspect ratios to suck you into the Vietnam jungle. Starting in ultra-widescreen to reflect the shiny modernity of present-day Ho Chi Minh City, the film flashes back to harrowing war scenes in boxed-in, newsreel-style sequences. During this descent into absurdity there’s urgent discussion of American racism and homages to Rambo and Apocalypse Now.
This socio-Rambo combo doesn’t completely gel. On the one hand a didactic Spike Lee film, on the other an almost Tarantinoesque genre pastiche, the picture’s over-reliance on violence detracts from an otherwise searing indictment of American society. What sells Lee’s thesis (that black Americans and the Vietnamese poor continue to pay the price for an immoral war) are natural and powerful performances from the 5 leads, alongside Jonathan Majors, the breakout star of The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Lee’s pointed references to Trump (whom he calls Agent Orange in interviews) bring home the hypocrisy of a nation that disproportionately sent black men to their deaths as the wealthy faked bone spurs to dodge the draft – all while waging a domestic war against African Americans. Less successful are his aims to humanise the Vietcong, since the protagonists display little reflection on their part in American atrocities.
A little long at 2.5 hours, Da 5 Bloods is a timely treatise on American history, war movies and the sacrifice of black Americans overlooked by the genre and bungled by George Lucas.